Recent debate about network neutrality has largely focused on how to make sure broadband providers don’t manipulate their customers’ Internet connections (or as John Oliver put it, how to prevent “cable company f*ckery”). But in today’s world of smartphones and tablets people are spending less of their time on the Internet typing at a computer and more of it swiping on a smartphone. This is why it’s critically important for net neutrality principles to apply to mobile broadband too.
The good news is that there is greater competition in the mobile broadband space than the wired broadband market. Unsatisfied customers should be able to vote with their wallet and pick a new carrier (absent unduly burdensome, anti-competitive switching costs). That could change, however, and that means we need to be paying attention. To help that along, here’s a quick explainer.
Smartphones and tablets are computers
A smartphone (or a tablet) is just another type of computer—it just happens to be able to make phone calls and take pictures too. And a smartphone’s Internet connection is its most important feature: after all, how “smart” is a phone that can’t look up directions, share photos or videos, or browse the web (except through Wi-Fi)?
At the same time, people are spending more and more time on the Internet via mobile devices. And for many, mobile devices are the primary source of Internet access. Over half of Americans adults use smartphones. What’s more, African American and Latino communities are more likely to access the Internet on a mobile device than a home wire-line connection. The Internet should be no less open on these platforms.
The ubiquity and necessity of mobile Internet means that it’s vital that we ensure that mobile providers don’t abuse their control. And that means we need net neutrality for mobile broadband too.
What mobile net neutrality looks like today
Unfortunately, having more competition in this space isn’t doing the job. Additionally, there are no transparency requirements for mobile Internet and no industry-wide prohibitions on discrimination or blocking.
Mobile broadband providers have taken full advantage of this lax environment, discriminating against certain types of applications and trying to extract more money from consumers depending on how they use their data. For example:
AT&T blocked Apple’s FaceTime service in order to force customers to pay higher prices;
In 2011, Verizon blocked tethering, the practice of using your phone’s wireless data for other devices, in order to get customers to pay additional fees, until the FCC stopped them. (T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T still make users pay extra for tethering.)
As of now mobile providers are delivering a second-class Internet, where they get to decide what can and cannot be accessed via your smartphone.
What mobile net neutrality needs to look like
Instead, mobile device owners should enjoy the same levels of control for networked applications on their mobile devices as they do on their laptops and desktops. This means no blocking, traffic shaping, or data discrimination on the part of mobile Internet providers.
This also includes ending tethering restrictions. Restrictions on tethering for mobile devices are discriminatory and anti-innovative. Open access rules should extend to cover tethering (or equivalent protections) to all wireless Internet access services.
Mobile broadband providers should also adhere to the same sort of enhanced transparency that’s needed from traditional wire-line broadband providers. That means mobile providers need to regularly disclose what sorts of congestion management techniques they use as well as statistics on download and upload speed, latency, and packet loss, indexed by cell tower location and time of day.
Mobile providers should meet this requirement in two different ways.
For one, providers should periodically share anonymized versions of whatever internal performance datasets they use for themselves. Providers have gone to extraordinary and intrusive lengths to collect this sort of data about network performance from their customers’ phone operating systems. The least they could do is make that information useful for the rest of us.
Additionally, providers should give consumers access to the phone’s “baseband chip,” the chip in the device that actually communicates with the cellular network, so that we can take measurements of connection quality themselves. Access to the baseband chip is vital because without baseband-layer performance measurement, consumers are stuck measuring performance from the OS layer, which is only an approximation to the true picture. This is like the difference between measuring traditional broadband speed using your laptop, versus actually measuring it at the cable or DSL modem—if your laptop is running slowly due to other programs the measurements could be skewed.
Zero-rating: when some websites don’t count against your data use
Zero-rating refers to when providers don’t count data to and from certain websites or services toward users’ monthly data limits. T-Mobile’s recent announcement of its Music Freedom plan is a good example of zero-rating: users can stream all the music they want from certain services without worrying about their data limit.
Technically, zero-rating is a type of data discrimination: it allows a mobile broadband provider to influence what Internet services people are more likely to use. In this way zero-rating allows mobile broadband providers to pick winners instead of leaving that determination to the market, thereby stifling competition and innovation.
Zero-rating has been used for laudable purposes as well. For example, the Wikipedia Zero program allows users to access Wikipedia for free. Some might argue that Wikipedia is exactly the type of service that deserves preferential treatment.
So how can we distinguish positive uses of zero-rating from uses that might stifle competition?
One remedy would be to allow zero-rating, but require carriers to be transparent about the terms of their contracts and to provide the same reasonable offers to any website. That way any company that wants to be zero-rated just has to pay the same price as all the others—thus restoring competition to an otherwise rigged marketplace.
Where do we go from here?
Right now the focus of the net neutrality is traditional broadband. But we need to prevent “mobile broadband f*ckery” too. Accessing the Internet is accessing the Internet, no matter which kind of computer you use. And just as there’s no silver bullet to ensure a neutral net for wired broadband service, it’ll take an ensemble of solutions to keep our mobile connectivity non-discriminatory as well. That means more competition, community based solutions (like the Open Wireless Movement), innovation, transparency, and prohibitions against non-neutral practices, like the blocking of tethering by mobile providers.
In the meantime, the FCC wants to hear from people across the country about how the proposed network neutrality rules will impact us all. So speak up and tell the FCC how and why you use the Internet over your mobile device. Let’s be sure they hear us loud and clear: network neutrality must extend to every way we access the Internet, regardless of whether or not we’re at a desk or on a smartphone.